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7.7 p.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, with your Lordships' permission I intend to speak briefly in the gap. I wish I had been able to take a proper part in the debate, but unfortunately I was not.

My main point is that I am extremely concerned about the dilution of the Civil Service caused, partly, through the creation of the agencies. I hope that there will be no more of them. The difference between the attitude of public service and, for instance, the idea of performance-related pay is one of the examples one has to offer. The Minister of Defence genuinely thought that performance-related pay for the Army was a reasonable suggestion. Fortunately, that was rejected.

As for the issue of the status of the Civil Service, as far back as the mid-1980s undergraduates were saying to me that they did not intend to try for the senior Civil Service; it had become like Marks and Spencers. That was not meant as a compliment.

There are too many accountants involved in the agencies; there are perhaps too many advisers and, as noble Lords have said, those advisers are not accountable. Not only are they not accountable but, by the very nature of Whitehall, it is difficult for them to have the information on which to base good advice. There is an enormous complexity and quantity of information in Whitehall. The Scott Report showed how difficult it was to ensure that any report reached everybody who ought to know about it. In the nature of things, advisers will find it even more difficult to be aware of all factors, particularly since many subjects do not concern only one Ministry. One needs only to look at the organophosphate issue to see that several ministries had been peddling along in parallel until recently.

Another point I should like to make is that the more cynical, rightly or wrongly, the public become about politicians, the more necessary it is for them to believe in something and that something must be the Civil Service, its impartiality, its wisdom and its loyalty. It is extremely important that no more should be done to reduce its standing and its value. We have seen too much overweaning power exercised, I am sorry to say in my own previous government, from the Cabinet Office. I deeply hope that that will not continue because it has very real dangers in terms of lack of accountability. It is also a procedure that will sap the belief of civil servants themselves in the value of what they do. That is an extremely important point to consider.

Lastly, there are, and have been in the past, advisers whose influence has been disproportionately great and whose right to that influence has not been sufficiently well known. I can think of at least one example in the Ministry of Defence. That is another serious danger.

7.10 p.m.

Lord Gillmore of Thamesfield: My Lords, perhaps I may take this opportunity to speak in the gap. I had not thought to intervene in the debate, but in the light of the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, and as a former "Sir Humphrey", perhaps I may be permitted a few moments.

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The noble Lord, Lord Annan, is correct to say that during the latter part of the 1980s the process by which government co-ordinated opinions and views and looked at the options underwent a change. That change stemmed from a greater reluctance at the time to use the traditional machinery of Cabinet committees. In previous times Cabinet committees had fallen into two categories: those composed of Ministers and those, often understudying the ministerial committee, composed of officials. In the late 1970s I remember taking part, as a relatively junior official, in a Cabinet committee established ad hoc. Its title was, I think, Misc.200, which indicates that there were up to 200 miscellaneous committees considering one matter or another in the course of that government. Our advice was given to Ministers from a variety of departments. Ministers on the ministerial level committee passed that on to Cabinet. The process of co-ordination between departments in Whitehall was thus established. The breakdown or the disuse of those committees seems to me a pity and can be held to blame, I believe, for some of the mistakes that were made. I hope very much that the Minister will be able to reassure the House that the re-establishment of those committees will help to ensure co-ordination between departments in Whitehall.

My second point concerns agencies. Here I am in some difficulty because, as a member of your Lordships' Committee on the Public Service, it is precisely one of the areas which we have been researching and studying. Many of us, including those who have been in the public service, have learnt a great deal which was previously unknown to us.

The issue the Government have to address is that of accountability. There is no doubt in my mind that in many respects the creation of agencies has had a beneficial effect on the conduct of public business. The delivery of simple services, whether passports or vehicle licences, has been done more effectively and efficiently and the public have benefited. But there are agencies whose tasks step very close to the politically sensitive. There, I think, the question arises of who is answerable to whom and whether the Minister or Secretary of State in charge can, to quote Aneurin Bevan's comment, be responsible for bedpans in hospitals. Who answers to whom? Can a civil servant be called upon to give evidence to a Select Committee; and, if so, when he does give evidence, is he speaking on behalf of his Minister? That question needs careful consideration. If, as Sir Christopher Foster recommends, and as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Nolan, is now suggesting, a civil servant should speak independently of his Minister, that changes the relationship between the civil servant and the Minister. That, in turn, will produce a significant shift in the role of the Civil Service and the relationship with Ministers.

In my personal experience, which is limited and somewhat specialised, the role of political advisers has been helpful provided the political adviser in a department is part of the machine. It is essential that he should be brought in together with civil servants. My experience is that civil servants rather relish and enjoy the breath of outside air and the questioning which an

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external adviser can bring. This, if properly conducted, can be a virtuous process and not one which leads necessarily to disruption within the department.

I ask the House to forgive me for intervening. I believe the matters I have mentioned are worthy of considerable thought, particularly the questions of responsibility and accountability and of co-ordination within government. For many years that was conducted through a series of Cabinet committees which, on the whole, by and large, ensured that the government were provided with advice from across Whitehall horizontally and from which, in my submission, they benefited.

7.17 p.m.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Annan, for initiating a debate on a matter of real importance--the provision of efficient and good government in the public interest. For my part, I am particularly glad that two noble Lords have spoken in the gap. Each of them has had particular practical experience. Indeed, they were exactly the kind of speakers that the noble Lord, Lord Annan, was hoping would participate in the debate. I agree with everything both have said and will not repeat any of it. I am only sorry that they were curtailed by time from giving us the benefit of their experience in more detail.

The best thing I can do is to speak very much from modest, practical experience. I had the pleasure and privilege of serving as one of those special advisers--a special policy adviser--between 1974 and 1976. I served my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Hillhead and my noble friend Lord Harris of Greenwich, who is sitting next to me, whose presence here this evening might have a slight chilling effect on what I would otherwise reveal about those days more than 20 years ago.

I do not altogether share the pessimism of some speakers about the state to which the present Civil Service has come. I shall leave it to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Hendon, another person with practical experience, to defend her Government's record on that when she speaks in a few minutes' time.

One aspect has not been mentioned at all. The healthiest department of government during the Thatcher and Major years, the one which renewed itself best and the one which is now in the best condition of the three branches of government, was the judicial department. It was the judicial department of government which managed to evolve some constitutional principles and began to call Ministers and civil servants to account and act as a counterweight to the domination of Parliament by the executive branch of government. But that is not the central issue raised by the debate today; and nor are judges civil servants.

I should like to deal with one or two problems which the Motion indicates. The first is the problem of securing co-operation between government

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departments. That is a perennial problem and not one created by the previous government. I am sure that it is with us now.

Professor Peter Hennessy and his colleagues published an interesting Fabian pamphlet in April. They wrote,

    "One of the trickiest areas of any government is to get ministers and government departments to cooperate. Many policy objectives require the cooperation of a number of Whitehall departments, and securing this can be a problem. Whitehall is well geared to working vertically, with both ministers and civil servants representing departmental interests and defending their turf, but bad at dealing with issues that cut across departmental lines".

That was certainly my experience when I was a special policy adviser in the Home Office. I remember the problems that we had in seeking to tackle serious problems of racial disadvantage, cutting across government departments dealing with housing, education, employment, family policy, social security, policing and criminal justice. It was like rowing in treacle: cumbersome, laborious and in the end wholly ineffectual. It certainly has left enduring scars in that area.

I agree with Professor Hennessy and his colleagues that cross-departmental problems must be seen as a high priority of the Prime Minister and of the Government if they are to get the attention of high calibre Ministers and officials who can push through a solution. I agree with them that political will is the key to success.

There is a second matter I wish to refer to briefly. It is one that has arisen several times; namely, the role of political advisers and their relationship to Ministers and civil servants. Special advisers are appointed by the Secretary of State and they are his or her creatures. I was one such creature, as I have said. Although they are paid by the Civil Service they are outside its formal structure. As your Lordships know, there are two main kinds of special adviser. There is the political adviser whose job it is to stick to the Minister, manage his interests and explain the Minister to his department. In Professor Hennessy's happy phrase, those special advisers are,

    "guardian angels of the political agenda which the Minister came to office with".

Then there is the other kind, the special policy adviser appointed to provide expertise and direction on specific areas of policy. That was my task in seeking to develop policy for legislation on sex and race discrimination in particular.

I am sorry to say--and I have said it before--that in my personal experience there was real obstruction at official level to agreed policy, especially on sex discrimination legislation. That obstruction was not always done as skilfully as one sees on television in "Yes, Minister" or "Yes, Prime Minister". It did not result in better government; it was sometimes downright unethical and it should not have happened. It led, among other things--if one reads the noble Lord's memoirs--to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, sending me home to write a White Paper on equality for women for want of co-operation in a minority Labour Government

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which the civil servants did not regard as having a proper mandate and probably thought would be booted out shortly at the second general election.

It was of course vital to have our ideas tested by civil servants. It was vital not to steamroller policy through. But it was counterproductive to have separate politics of the bureaucracy being pursued in the way it happened in that brief period. It was not typical; it did not happen for very long, but it was quite deplorable.

I believe that the use of outside special advisers, as the noble Lord, Lord Gillmore of Thamesfield, indicated, with appropriate qualifications and experience, in an adequately staffed ministerial policy unit--in his word "integrated" as part of the machine--should make it easier for governments to implement their policies without that kind of obstruction or other problems. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, that everything depends on the personality, expertise, strength and integrity of the special adviser and developing a healthy, honest, professional relationship with permanent officials and Ministers.

When I was a special adviser I always made it a rule, when discussing any matter of importance with Ministers, only to do so in the presence of a private secretary. That was to avoid any impression of backstairs intrigue or improper influence. I am not sure that the reverse compliment was always paid. I suggest that that is a vital and sensible rule of practice.

It is healthy for Whitehall to be exposed to outsiders and for outsiders to learn how Whitehall works. That flourished under the previous government and I do not criticise it. There needs also to be a sufficient core or critical mass of special advisers in an effective ministerial policy unit in the Prime Minister's office and in some government departments. But the ground rules need to be appropriate and workable.

However, on the other side of the coin, which needs to be emphasised, there is a compelling need to avoid undue reliance on outside experts sympathetic to the policies of the government of the day. If they were given too much influence they would demoralise the permanent career service. If they were given too much power they would undermine the relationship between Ministers and civil servants. If they became too numerous, powerful and influential, then the Civil Service would become dangerously politicised. But we have not, with all respect to the noble Earl, remotely reached that point or anything like it in this country under the present Government or before.

I believe that it is in the public interest that the Civil Service itself should be a main source of innovation, able to command the confidence of Ministers and able to execute their policies intelligently and sympathetically. Ministers are entitled to take a close interest in the choice of their senior Civil Service advisers. Equally, I believe that civil servants are entitled to be strongly protected against being punished by transfer, non-promotion or otherwise for not pleasing their political masters. I believe that civil servants are fairly well protected against the introduction of a political spoils system, but I shall suggest one or two changes that might improve matters.

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The next point I would like to mention briefly is the need for a constitutional Civil Service. We need to ensure that the functions of the public service can be carried out within the framework of a constitutional set of values based on the principles of freedom. I believe that great progress was made in that direction by the previous government in developing a Civil Service code, largely under the leadership of Mr. Giles Radice and the Select Committee in another place, by the noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, in another capacity as head of the Association of First Division Civil Servants, and by Sir Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary. That was a great step forward in my view. When the present Government incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law, that again will provide a constitutional code of values and duties for Ministers and public officials. It will combat the vice of ethical aimlessness which has afflicted some parts of the public service.

I am also convinced of the need to replace what I call the East India Company (John Company) model of the Civil Service that we now have under the Royal Prerogative--based on a model that was appropriate for a chartered company in ruling India before the Mutiny--by a proper statutory system. I was lucky to participate in the joint committee of the Labour and Liberal Democrat Parties on constitutional reform a few months ago. There was common ground that there should be a Civil Service Act to give legal force to the code of conduct for the Civil Service, emphasising its political neutrality and making clearer the lines of Civil Service accountability. I am encouraged by the recent statement made by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Dr. David Clarke, the Cabinet Minister in charge of the Office of Public Service, who said that he was considering putting the Civil Service code on a statutory basis.

I very much hope that the Government will find the parliamentary time to introduce a short non-controversial civil service Bill, meaning that the Civil Service would no longer be regulated by Orders in Council made under the Royal Prerogative, but by orders made by statutory authority. The code could be given statutory recognition in a schedule so that it can be easily amended by secondary legislation. Civil servants would no longer be Crown servants, but would have the same employment rights and duties as all other employees, plus a few others because of their particular employment. Appeals by them against improper pressure would no longer be to the First Civil Service Commissioner, but to an independent ombudsman, as happens with the Armed Forces, or to a staff councillor, as happens with the security services. The code of conduct would need to be tidied up as well, as would the rules for appearing before parliamentary committees.

I very much welcome the fact that the Government are committed to a White Paper and to legislation on freedom of information to tackle another vice of the English bureaucracy, unnecessary secrecy. That will do a great deal to produce more accountable government. I was heartened to hear the Lord Chancellor say at last Friday's seminar that that was a high priority.

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All of those ideas, and others mentioned by your Lordships, have been stimulated by the Motion tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Annan. I very much hope that what seems to be a dry and arid subject has to some extent been given life by this evening's debate. I do not altogether share the pessimism of the noble Lord, Lord Annan, about the current condition of the Civil Service. Indeed, some of the fruits of its work have already become evident under the new Government. However, I agree with the noble Lord that there are always dangerous pressures which need to be resisted if the Civil Service is to maintain its independence, impartiality and deserved reputation for excellence.

7.31 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, perhaps I may join the other noble Lords by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Annan, for having initiated this timely debate from the Cross-Benches. I stress the noble Lord's position as a Cross-Bencher because that indicates that the subject is a matter of important principle, and not of party political point-scoring.

The debate is timely because within hours of this Government taking power on 2nd May political appointments were being made to the Prime Minister's Office ahead even of the completion of the appointment of his team of Ministers. Indeed, on Saturday 3rd May--I repeat, on a Saturday--even though there was no national crisis of any sort, about a mere 36 hours after the polls had closed, a special meeting of the Privy Council was held at Buckingham Palace. That was so that the Civil Service Order in Council of 1995 could be amended to allow, among other things, the creation of an extra appointment in the Prime Minister's Office.

I should say at the outset that I do not see any objection in the appointment of "special advisers" from outside the Civil Service. Indeed, I agree with those, like the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, who say that such appointments mean that Ministers can receive the political advice and assistance that they need without in any way impugning the impartiality of the Civil Service of which we are justly proud and of which other countries are envious.

In my own all too short time on the Government Front Bench I discovered how rigidly and jealously departments guarded themselves from political involvement. Indeed, in the case of one clearly political question which the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, asked me on 5th July 1995, there was the distinct impression that no department wanted to take it on. My own colleagues also regarded it as such a hot potato that as the most junior person in the whole of the government hierarchy I was told that I had been unanimously volunteered to deal with it.

The concern to which I referred is not only occasioned by the timing of some of those appointments, but by the reluctance of the Government to make public any details of those appointments. It is difficult to understand the reasons for that evasiveness, which continues to this very day. I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity of this debate to

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answer some of the outstanding questions. If he cannot do so today, I hope that he will at least undertake to ensure that an unequivocal answer is forthcoming by 19th July at the latest.

It is a tradition of Parliament that individual civil servants should not normally be publicly criticised because they are not in a position to defend themselves. I should like to make it clear that I am not voicing any criticism of any of the 53 political advisers although by the very nature of their jobs they place themselves in the firing line and cannot expect the same exemption as a career civil servant.

The problem lies in three directions. I refer first to the haste with which some of the appointments were made and the nature of two of those appointments. I refer here to the appointment of the Prime Minister's press secretary, Mr. Alastair Campbell. No one can doubt that gentleman's abilities, but when on 10th June I asked the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, what made Mr. Campbell better qualified for the post than a long-established civil servant, the noble Lord replied:

    "I do not wish to comment on Mr. ... Campbell's specific qualifications".--[Official Report, 10/6/97; col. 831.]

The noble Lord pointed out that outsiders have been appointed to the Press Office in the past--indeed, they have--but it has been customary since the departure of Mr. Joe Haines as Harold Wilson's press secretary some 20 years ago--and even before that time--for the press secretary to be a career civil servant. There is a very good reason for that. Modern communications, particularly the instancy and persistency of television news broadcasts, mean that the media should be able to distinguish between the communication of factual news and political propaganda. The proper place for the latter is not 10 Downing Street; it is Millbank Tower.

The other appointment to which I should like to refer is that of Mr. Jonathan Powell, another gentleman with undoubted talents. It is not the fact that he was appointed that raised eyebrows; it was what he was appointed as. The kite was flown that he was to be the Prime Minister's Principal Private Secretary, probably the second most senior position in the Civil Service. However, Sir Robin Butler, the head of the Civil Service, let it be known that the idea made him, and I quote, "seriously unrelaxed". That is a masterpiece of Civil Service understatement. I suppose that, translated, it means something like "seething with anger". The kite was hastily hauled down from the roof of Millbank Tower. The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, told me in that same answer that,

    "there has never been any question of his taking over the role of a permanent civil servant".

He was merely the chief of staff to the Prime Minister. I wonder what it was then that "seriously unrelaxed" Sir Robin. In his reply to my question, the noble Lord told us what Mr. Powell would not be doing, but we have yet to learn which of the duties formerly performed by the Principal Private Secretary Mr. Powell now carries out.

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The second problem is the sheer number of such political appointments--53 in all, so far. The Secretary of State for Health seems to be able to rub along with just--

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